By John Lechner
Want a yummy but cheap food experience in Melbourne?
Melbourne is a favourite escape location for both Kim and I. In fact it was one of the first places we travelled to together and was Kim's ever airplane flight.
I guess nearly 25 years ago I purchased a mystery weekend - flights and 2 nights accommodation.
Back in those days was just Qantas and Ansett and they both offered them. A fixed price and you could end up anywhere within 3 hours.
Since then we have returned a few times but recently we were overdue, probably by about 3 years, maybe more. It is so much harder for a quick getaway without the kids and no family close by.
Someone is watching you - Melbourne has some unbelievable street art, explore the lanes and back streets to see some breathtaking work.
Anyhow a few months earlier we had booked a one way cruise, 2 nights from Melbourne to Sydney. So we decided to add an extra 2 nights in Melbourne to get our Melbourne fill.
Our plan was simple, leave our boys with our housesitter/dogsitter Jordan, believe me she is more than capable and the boys at 11 and 13 are pretty self sufficient. We had 4 nights away.
What I was really looking forward to was exploring Melbourne's food. I had done a bit of research but really we were planning to go with the flow.
After arriving in Melbourne in the late afternoon we headed out towards Flinders Street Station. There are so many options around there. But I guess subliminally I was heading to Degraves Street.
If you don't know it, it is basically a small street pedestrian only that is filled with restaurants, bars and cafes.
We sat at Degraves Espresso and started what ended up being a night of degustation visiting 3 different restaurants. With a little street performance thrown in too.
So back to Degraves Espresso, honestly with the menu of Tapas they have we could have easily settled in for the night and had a great night but that wasn't the plan, we wanted to explore.
So instead we decided on the "Trio of Dips" Humous, Guacamole & Baba Ghanoush with fresh toasted pita bread. A beer and a wine respectively to top it off.
The Humous and Baba Ghanoush were out of this world and a great start. The pita was just wonderful so all in all a great start and honestly we need to go back and sample more of their tapas menu.
After this relaxing and yummy start we headed down towards Centre Place, at the time we didn't know it but were just heading in our original direction.
Shandong Mama Mini
As we headed in to Central Place on the Saturday early evening, not a lot was open. There was a cafe that looked interesting that was closing up and this hole in the wall asian place.
On closer inspection it was Shandong Mama Mini, I had heard the name Shandong Mama before and had it on my short list because an article I had read said they had the best dumplings, I LOVE DUMPLINGS.
Mackeral Pan Fried Dumplings from Shandong Mama Mini
I remembered the recommendation to try their house special "Mackerel Fish Pan Fried Dumplings". Personally I am not a big fish eater and have never been a mackerel fan.
BUT, these dumplings were out of this world. Best dumplings I have ever had anywhere in the world, hands down.
Another great surprise at Shandong Mama was there incredible craft beer range. When I ordered my beer at Degraves Espresso, the most exotic beer on their menu was Peroni. There was a time when Peroni was exotic in Australia, about 20 odd years ago.
Shandong Mama had Hawkers, loved the IPA, Barrow Boys, Kelly Brothers, Mountain Goat, Feral and more. The beer was icy cold and in good supply. They even have a special, plate of dumplings and a craft beer for $20, bargain.
We went back the next night with friends and tried more. The lamb dumplings were extraordinary. There are two Shandong Mama restaurants, the main one at Mid City Arcade, Shop 7, 200 Bourke St and Mini which we found at 5 Centre Place. Both have the same menu. Just go you will love it.
After our fill of dumplings, just two small plates as we wanted to explore more, we headed off in search of more of Melbourne. We ended up on Swanston Street and sat around enjoying the performance of a group of young guys, it was acrobatics and dance. But sadly, overall there was more patter and less performance.
I get that you need to build anticipation, get a decent crowd but when 60-70% of your performance is you telling us how awesome it will be and then another 10% of tease performance you have lost me.
Tell me how good you are, reinforce that you make your living as a street artist but then show me, stop talking. We tried, we lasted maybe 20-25 mins but in the end we were still no closer to the real performance and walked away, a shame but it was frustrating.
We then explored our way up to Chinatown, so much choice, big and small restaurants. in the end we went to another dumpling house, this time to Juicy Bao in Little Bourke Street, we had the house special Signature Steamed Juicy Bao - Pork Xiao Long Bao.
Have you ever wondered how they get the hot broth inside the dumplings? They make a special broth jelly that gets added to the meat mix that melts to soup when steamed.
Queen Victoria Markets
The next morning we caught up with our friends Liz & Stuart and headed to Queen Victoria Markets for breakfast. It is actually a place I try and eat breakfast every time I am in Melbourne. Specifically Bratwurst Shop & Co, for a crusty bread roll, BBQd Bratwurst, sauerkraut with german mustard and a cappuccino. The perfect breakfast to take me back to my German roots.
If a sausage for breakfast isn't your style then perhaps a Borek with cheese and spinach for only $3. It is a Turkish phyllo pastry with filling. Cheese and spinach is a classic or perhaps try a spicy potato or spicy lamb.
If French Pastries are more your thing then you will be in heaven. They are divine and so much choice. You can go nuts from just a few dollars at the two Bakery/Pâtisserie vendors.
If it feels like all we did in Melbourne was eat and drink, you're not far off, we did explore, shop and more but mostly we explored the food. For lunch we returned to Shandong Mama Mini with our friends and tried more of the dishes, the lamb dumplings was a favourite, mostly because it was a surprise. Lamb is not a food normally associated with East Asian cooking but they were sublime.
Our visit to Melbourne would not be complete without a visit to Lygon Street. This traditionally Italian and Greek Street has diversified lately and there is a lot of variety. But for us on a cold and wet night only Italian was going to fit the bill.
Gnocchi gorgonzola - off menu but so yummy
You can toss a coin in these places and never know what you will get, we ended up at la Spaghettteria. They were obviously a bit slow so offered us our first round of drinks for free.
Plenty of menu options under $20 with traditional Italian meals of pizza, pasta and more. I went off menu as I had a craving for gnocchi with cheeses, it wasn't there but they happily served up a great tasting and generous gnocchi gorgonzola. Lots of cheese and plenty of bite from the blue cheese.
I'd love to say we ended the evening with an amazing dessert after a nice stroll. Sadly our dessert and service at Stuzzichino was a let down in every way. A true let down at the end of a wonderful day.
issus cafe bar
The next morning we had time for a lazy breakfast before heading to Station Pier to board our cruise to Sydney. We returned to Centre Place this time to check out issus cafe bar, a cafe with a middle eastern take on many of the dishes.
Sadly perfectly cooked eggs is rare but these were spot on.
On our first visit to Centre Place I spied one of their "All Day Breakfast" items I just had to have. "Pulled Pork" - housemade spiced pork served on a potato rosti with poached eggs and harrisa holandaise. Delightful. The ladies tried out the eggs benedict and loved those. I had to try a "Golden Latte", espresso with almond milk, tumeric root juice, cinnamon and honey. Interesting, tasted fine but I won't be rushing back.
Overall a great gastronomic trip to Melbourne, all jammed in to about 40 hours. We will be back for more food exploring. My next flavour destination is Singapore, planning to get there in July. Where is yours? Got any secret dishes or restaurants to share? Comment below.
Yours in food and travel